Adrian McKenzie is a poet from Stoke-on-Trent, UK.
Please tell us about your poetry journey.
My journey began as a six-year-old kid that saw a rapper on Saturday morning television and was immediately fascinated by the way words fitted the drum pattern. Being a black kid in a suburban area, mum surrounded me with books as she wanted my work ethic and intelligence to overcome any racialised barriers. I was barely 10 years old when I became obsessed with the poem ‘Roman Wall Blues’ by W.H. Auden from one she’d bought. For the rest of my formal education I enjoyed English and creative writing but was never interested in poetry and hated literature analysis.
I was a people pleasing shy kid whose first love was music. Being raised in a church going household, I joined the local choir at 11 having dreamed about becoming a choir director and emulating my favourite gospel artists. Despite the ridicule I received for my voice, I left for university at 18 respected for my songwriting ability. It would be a place where my musical ambitions would peak. I went on to write for other singers and set up a gospel group that won regional awards.
Whilst at university I stumbled on spoken word during a search for rap battles and will never forget the awe of hearing ‘5 senses’ by renowned American poet Saul Williams. I would hone my style in online forums. Influences of battle rap and Saul can be found in my writing and performance to this day. I would be selected as one of the best up and comers by the local Poet Laureate within a few years of returning home to Birmingham. However, it took another move away to Stoke-on-Trent for me to become what I am now.
Can you share a poem with us and walk us through the idea behind it?
Scratches, cuts and breaks created plates Waves across broken lines need no co-signs Those with ears heard smiles Hard times made hearts soft as vinyl Stop, start continue for alignment Its amazing we dance in silence as sound bites us The bug nobody wants to squash or repel despite the danger of jezebels decibels Just pile on the pylons so this soul train can never crash We turn tables like bric a brac and from the crick and crack you can get with this or get with that Pleasantries made relatives from battles that were stress relief We pop locked our energies until joy thieves submerged Lucifer son of the morning, we chased em out of earth
This piece could by summed up by the Bob Marley quote, “when music hits you feel no pain”. Like many of my poems, it is tightly packed with a few, if you know you know references.
It is rooted in the early origins and practices of hip hop which was founded by DJ Kool Herc. The DJ who would play cuts from different artists, scratching the record to create break beats. This is coupled with the idea of pain and I explore how we process music in spite of it.
Dance is referenced. When we dance it’s for us, others might join them even imitate things they like to share joy. Think weekend club nights. In hip hop, dance battles used to be a way of diffusing tension and negativity as well as express themselves.
What themes keep cropping up in your writing?
Identity / faith or belief / relationships/ humanity
What are you reading at the moment?
Nothing! Although I read a lot, it’s primarily for information rather than pleasure. True to my roots, you’ll see more influence in my writing from who I’m listening to.
What advice would you give to new poets?
Write and share from where you’re at. From the words you use, to your voice and the way you feel on and off the page. It’s all yours, nobody else’s, so embrace it.
Where is the best place to get copies of your work?
For printed copies you can find me on Amazon – I have two projects, Bless Yuh Art which is a year’s worth of poetry in the order it was inspired, and 7 on the back which was my first foray into self-publishing. However, if you want to see and experience my poetry from across the years – both my YouTube and Instagram pages have a number of videos.
Have you any upcoming performances?
I’ll be doing an online performance for Gloucestershire Poetry Society in the autumn, date to be confirmed, and I have a headline set at Voices from The Fountain in Walsall for May 2024. I’ll be putting up performances on my social media pages as soon as I know.
Hunter Boone has worked as an attorney and private investigator, and lives and works in Kalamazoo, MI. He now concentrates his work primarily on poetry and fiction. His work has appeared in Ink Pantry, The Opiate Magazine, Rougarou, Projected Letters, Former People, West Trade Review and others. When he is not writing he enjoys playing the piano and composing music on his Yamaha P-125 keyboard.
Tell us about your debut poetry collection, Breakfast With Unicorns
Breakfast With Unicorns is a quintessential amalgam that showcases my best work over the past thirty years. Its subject matter includes poems of loss and longing, rejection and sorrow and I think its theme (if there is a theme to it) is one that invites the reader to confront our existential predicament – the predicament of being human in a too frequently inhumane world, a world that we are thrown into, ready or not.
Could you share one of your poems and walk us through the idea and inspiration behindit?
Well, yes – for starters, who hasn’t had a crush at one time or another on a brilliant, seemingly unobtainable professor? Or maybe this is just my unique, self-inflicted penchant for suffering. At any rate, I think my poem, “Ms. Alligator” illustrates the kind of frustration and disillusionment that is often the result of an unrequited love or mis-matched affection:
She had the emotional presence of a toothpick, the personality of a comatose eel . . .
A woman I desired read Antigone which she encouraged me to do, so I did. When I came upon, “Teiresias,” I said, “I can’t spell that,” she said, “Look it up.” Somewhere.
She became that woman you wouldn’t expect – out of proportion to everything else.
When she moved her body slid – of a piece – which caused a problem. The ground upon which she walked swayed and swelled people running, different directions up and down the boulevard while the other women – kinder, nobler, gentler with foreign accents showed themselves open, not nearly as dubious – yet this one stuck hardened within her molten core – sad – yet oh so beautiful in a glittering sort of way with
beckoning, surreal blue tourmaline eyes that rolled back into her head as she spoke incomprehensible
and inhuman things – enticements thick with ice from this sorry sophist and enigmatic soul you couldn’t poke through though I tried many times.
As the poem indicates, the woman who is the focus of the protagonist’s affection is cold and indifferent, reptilian. And yes, like a comatose eel.
The use of metaphor and simile illustrate the harsh reality of what the protagonist has endured as the result of this encounter and leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind about the outcome; in the end the protagonist does not get the girl (or the reptile in this case).
The idea behind the poem is based on my personal experience of having gotten in “over my head” and fallen in love with my intellectual mentor, a professor who was at once beautiful yet unexpectedly cold. This is a modus operandi and course of action I do not recommend for anyone.
What’s your creative process?
My creative process often starts with a lyrical impulse, a phrase, or a poem title. The title or phrase typically comes out of an emotional experience or some intellectual matter that is yet unresolved within myself. I work out the poem as I write; it rarely comes, “full cloth.”
Tell us about your BA in Creative Writing.
I was extremely lucky (and there’s no other word besides “lucky” to describe it) to have had extraordinary mentors as an undergraduate. The most influential and helpful was Eve Shelnutt who was from South Carolina and taught for years at the College of the Holy Cross near Boston. She left me with many memorable lessons but her most valuable words, a kind of mantra I carry with me were:
“There’s nothing to replace a sense of integrity about one’s work.”
What are you reading at the moment?
I am currently reading the collected works of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I do think it’s important for a poet to find both poets and fiction writers to contribute to the poet’s repertoire. Especially with a writer like Fitzgerald, whose prose is lyrically haunting and so beautifully fluid. There is much to learn from many of these other great prose writers: Hemingway, V.S. Naipaul, Michael Ondaatje, Thomas Mann to name a few.
Have you any advice for budding poets?
Don’t listen to your parents. The ones who ask you to pursue and study something “more practical.” It’s fine to be practical and get a double major – like in business and creative writing – but don’t let the creative writing take a back seat to anybody or anything if poetry or some other writing genre is your first love.
Who inspires you and why?
My current publisher and friend, Trystan Cotten, founder and Managing Editor of Transgress Press. Trystan is truly an innovator and trailblazer and probably the hardest working person I know. He manages to solicit and publish new work from authors all over the world, many of whom are from marginalized communities. He manages to do this while at the same time carrying a full teaching load at Cal State University – Stanislaus where he is a full professor. And just when he gives you the impression he is “all work and no play” you find out that he has just left for a four-day trip to Maui to go surfing or is in Chicago to go “high-step dancing” with his friends. Unbelievable. I find him inspiring because he never seems to let anything get him down and he really does have this relentless work ethic and the gift (or the ability) to have fun and thoroughly enjoy himself no matter what he is doing.
What’s next for you?
I am always writing poems and will continue to write poems because they are relentless in their pursuit of me. A concept or an idea or a particular feeling or image will come to me and stay with me until I write it out and try to turn it into art or at least a meaningful encounter with language.
Alongside poetry, I am also working on a novel that has been in the works for over a decade. I am not an expeditious prose writer – far more the tortoise and not the hare. The novel is loosely based on my experience of growing up in a small town with lots of quirky characters and unexpected turns of plot. I hope to have it finished by summer of 2023.
You can find more of Hunter’s work here on Ink Pantry.
Beyond scouring my poems to learn about some aspect of what I think about, I can inform I inherited my ice cream flavour preferences from my father, and my artistic interests from my mother. Before the Covid era, I undertook lessons in archery, swimming, and the Historical European Martial Art of 16th German Longsword. I kidded myself these past times were writing research, but mainly, it was all for fun. That’s not to say research isn’t also fun. Anyway, I like visiting art galleries and museums, I don’t drink coffee and rarely drink tea, and I believe no matter the temperature, humidity is my nemesis.
What first inspired you to write?
I was inspired to write because it was such a difficult thing to achieve. I was 10. I’d just learned how to read, and my mum had submitted a short story to a women’s magazine. After reading my mother’s story and unashamedly plagiarising it for school, I received astounded praise from my teacher. Mum’s story was rejected. Both of our stories were lost to history. However, ‘The Mystery Lights’ was the first positive feedback about writing I experienced, and I wanted that feeling again.
Which writers inspire you and why?
I’m more inspired by the works than writers. I’m wary of having heroes. However, I’m inspired by good poetry anywhere. As for works, Perdido Street Station by China Miéville took me a year to read, and I had the most fantastical and visionary dreams while absorbing Miéville’s vividly rich world. I found that inspiring. Decades ago, I attended a lecture by Isobel Carmody, who described her career, which began at 14 when she started writing the first book of what became the Obernewtyn Chronicles. She brought the draft, a stack of paper almost as tall as she was. That impressed upon me that while a writer can have a compelling vision, it takes effort to see it to fruition. More recently, I was directly inspired by a live streamed hosted by The Red Lemon journal editors: their discussion of embracing the poetic in the everyday was helpful. As a result, I wrote a poem about a supermarket that was just accepted for publication elsewhere.
What themes keep cropping up in your writing?
I find I need to consciously anchor poems to something concrete, (like bridges, or crockery), by which I can explore ideas or feelings; mostly these relate to myths, the natural world, time, change, and cycles of life and death, binaries, such as light and shadow, and interruptions to binaries. These feelings and ideas can also float around looking for flotsam to cling to in order to be a poem. However, the opposite is true too. For many works, I have the thing in mind, but it’s waiting for the ideas and feelings to pop out to meet them, like opposite poles of a magnet instantly attracted.
Tell us three things you learned from studying your Masters in Writing and Literature?
I learned I was capable of completing a longer piece of sustained work, while realising where I needed to improve, and what my limitations were. The course was an opportunity to consolidate my interests in a way I hadn’t had before. As to specifics, there was some tricky rhizomatic thinking, based on A Thousand Plateaus, as applied to historical fiction writing.
What is your opinion on lower case poetry/communication?
My take is informed by my experience of how long it took me to learn grammar. I’m all for writers knowing rules, and using them in formal communication, however, poems are their own nuggets of truth. Poets and poems can follow formal rules or ignore them. These days one person’s free form emoji poem is as valid as another person’s sestina: who wants to be the person arguing to illegitimatise artistic expression? There’s already enough going on in the world.
What are you reading at the moment?
I have on my bedside table Underground by Robert MacFarlane, and have been dipping into the exquisite poetry of Eileen Chong.
Have you any advice for new writers?
I’m a fairly newly published poet, however, I’ve been around long enough to trip over advice from others out there. My advice is that no one piece of advice is for everyone. Writers will occasionally need ways to escape fear of the blank page. I use limitation works can chafe against, such as word counts, or specific poetic forms. Previously, I have used call outs such as February’s Post It Note Poetry challenge just to write something, even if it’s tiny. Mainly though, once in the creative swing of things, keep writing. Don’t stop to think about writing, or read about writing, or dream about being published. Put down words, polish them, then send them out – that last bit’s crucial – I didn’t send out poetry for years and years, until I decided in 2019 it was time. Since 2019, my poetry is either published or forthcoming in journals around the world.
Have you ever been on a literary pilgrimage?
No. I grew up in small rural communities in South Australia, most of which acknowledged their literary heritage. During high school, the dual public/school library encouraged writers to visit. My mother grew up as a neighbour to a famed children’s author, too. Thus, literary destinations were places around me. It never occurred that people sought out the homes where authors lived, or visited locations like the setting for Wuthering Heights. Now, I live in an official City of Literature. In addition, I spent my youth reading historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy, which ruled out pilgrimages to Mars, the Vogon home planet, or the French Revolution. If I had to plan a pilgrimage, Umberto Eco’s library is probably worthy of an awestruck visit.
Tell us about your visual art.
Firstly, I’ve had very little formal training, everything I create is an experiment in colour, line, shadow and movement, and contrasts, and some kind of mindfulness, which is another way of saying it’s pretentious doodling, mostly in pen, pencil, and previously in watercolour.
What is your working space like?
Ah. Yes, my craft stable table-like thing upon which my laptop balances while I sit in bed is comfy. Sometimes, I sit at the kitchen bench. If I’m out and about, I take a notepad, or occasionally use my phone to write. It’s not exactly the artist’s garret of romantic imaginings, but it works.
What’s next for you?
I’m collecting words to submit to literary editor Angela Meyer of Literary Minded, as last year I won an Austlit competition for a consultation. In addition, I have new poetry and short stories coming out in various journals over the course of this year, and I’m almost always submitting work to journals or looking for journals.
Rebecca Dempsey’s works are forthcoming or featured in Elsewhere Journal, Ligeia, and Schuylkill Valley Journal Online. Rebecca holds a Masters of Writing and Literature from Deakin University, lives in Melbourne, Australia, and can be found at WritingBec.com.
Can you tell us about your collection, Grenade Genie?
Grenade Genie, published by Fly on the Wall Press, is very much a book for people who want to read poetry that engages with, and says something about, the world in which we live. The book is split into four sections: ‘Cursed’, ‘Coerced’, ‘Combative’, and ‘Corrupted’, and within those four sections are poems which are all very much rooted in real-life, albeit with often fantastical elements. Inside these pages you’ll find, for instance, two-headed doctors, fashion-victim gorgons, a literal library, commas that kill, a little-known terrorist group called The Pedestrian Liberation Organisation, and grenade-encased genius.
It’s a book that has a lot of variety in terms of subject matter, but with one main theme that runs through the whole of the book – namely that, ultimately, everyone and everything is expendable, and while this knowledge can generate either a sense of hopelessness or the nothing-to-lose strength to rail against it, one strength of poetry is that, even if only the former gets expressed, the latter is automatically achieved, and in a very concise way too, making it all the more effective, and the main reason really why I’ve chosen this form to write in.
I enjoyed reading many poems in the collection, I found ‘Security Pass’ and ‘Jackpot’ particularly relatable. Do you have a favourite poem in the collection?
Thank you. I’d say the title poem, ‘Grenade Genie’, is currently my favourite. It’s about someone possessing genius and wanting to use it to change the world but, finding that it’s encased in a live grenade and requiring the spark, has little choice but to pull the pin in order to release the genie inside that will grant his wish, except that, of course, the explosion kills him, and his atoms (which form into lesser versions of himself) then proceed to get all of the credit instead of him. However, by pulling the pin, this person wipes out the establishment that was blocking all progress – an establishment of atoms from a previous explosion – and so it goes on (as it always has and always will).
‘The Phoney War’ was another poem which stayed with me after I’d read it. Can you share where the inspiration for this poem came from?
Thank you again, not least because the ‘The Phoney War’ is another personal favourite of mine in this collection. It’s ostensibly a simple poem about two young children – two brothers – in the 1970s, in their living room, playing at being World War Two Tommies fighting the Jerries, but it’s the ending that gives the poem its resonance, and it took a long time, and many drafts, for me to get that ending right.
I seem to have managed it, though, as various reviews of the book have described the poem’s ending as ‘devastating’ and ‘heart-wrenching’, which was very much the effect I wanted to achieve, especially as it’s based on a true event, so the ending isn’t just a device, it’s something real, something that was really felt by the person who was affected, the grandmother there at the kitchen stove who, unlike the boys (with their ‘umbrellas for rifles’, ‘smoking pencils, feeling tough’), had actually lived through the war and experienced, first hand, how terrible it was.
Whenever I’m introducing this poem at events, I say it’s a ‘poem about childhood, and play, and when reality intrudes on play’. And though the poem represents me as a child, it also represents me now, as a middle-aged adult who’s come to understand, much more, the significance of how harmless fun for me in the past wasn’t always such harmless fun for others.
Do you have a set writing routine? How long does it take you to write a poem?
I don’t have a set writing routine as such – it’s simply writing as and when I can – but I’ll seize any opportunity there is, and always find some way of making time for it, for all I know is, if too much time goes by without me being able to get my fix in some kind of way, I’ll soon become quite grouchy.
As for writing an actual poem, the length of time it can take has, in the past, ranged anywhere from a day to upwards of 25 years! But that’s the thing, while the writing of an actual poem can be quick, the editing of it (and then re-editing of it over, over and over again) can end up taking almost forever. For instance, a poem that’s in the book, called ‘Statement by the Pedestrian Liberation Organisation’, was first published on the letters page of the Islington Gazette in December 1994 as a very short 8-line poem; then, in July 1996, it was published as a 17-line poem in DirectAxiom, an anthology put out by the direct-action pedestrian rights group, Reclaim the Streets; then, by the time it was used for a film-poem I did in March 2010, it’d expanded into a 45-line poem; then, finally, in November 2017, it was published as a radically altered 54-line poem in the online magazine, ‘i am not a silent poet’ (which, apart from a few further tweaks, is the version which appears in the book).
What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve taken to reading writers’ biographies lately, and at the moment I’m reading Jubilee Hitchhiker – the life and times of Richard Brautigan, by William Hjortsberg. I discovered Brautigan’s writing relatively recently, starting with one of his novels, Sombrero Fallout. I’d been thinking, for quite a while, that I needed to try some Brautigan, and one day when I was in the Waterloo station branch of Foyles, I decided to do just that, and picking Sombrero Fallout from the three or four books of Brautigan’s there on the shelf, I read the foreword by Jarvis Cocker that really sold it to me, and I’m glad he did as, on buying the book and reading it, I found it really was every bit as good as billed – quirky and wise, instant and profound, and about nothing and everything, all at the same time.
Do you have any books or poems you’d like to recommend to us?
The last books I read are all ones I’m able to recommend – all pamphlets, as it happens: Rodney Wood’s When Listening Isn’t Enough, Julie Stevens’ Quicksand, and Damien Donnelly’s Eat the Storms, all quite different from each other, but all three of them quality reads. I also recently read a pre-publication version of Darren J Beaney’s The Machinery of Life, and it’s now been published, complete with my written endorsement, so it’s already very much on record that I’m recommending that one!
Has the pandemic / being in lockdown impacted on your creative process at all?
It hasn’t in terms of actual writing, but it has in terms of me being able to promote my work, and I felt the impact keenly right from the off, with Grenade Genie being published pretty much just as lockdown began, in April 2020. I’d been all set to go on what would have been my first ever proper tour, having organised feature slots at various live events and festivals in London and further afield – including a 60-minute solo show at the Leamington Poetry Festival in July, and shorter headlining slots in Coventry, Birmingham, Rochester and Saltburn – but then, just as pre-orders for the book began to be taken, the first lockdown began, and slowly but surely all the dates I’d organised got cancelled.
However, I was immediately positioned to get straight into the swing of the ‘new normal’, for the organisers of Winchester Fest, who’d booked me for a live in-person event to be held on 18th April, the day after my book was published, decided to go ahead anyway with the event, but online, and so facilitated the launch of my book via Zoom with a 60-minute feature – and, with events now only able to go ahead if they went online, opportunities began to arise which otherwise wouldn’t have happened. For instance, I ended up being a featured poet in the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival, based in Virginia, USA, a festival which I’d normally have had to travel to in order to participate but now could be a part of from the comfort of my home in London. And new opportunities arose regarding radio as well: Shows which, previously, I’d have had to travel to in order to talk in the studio, I was able, now, to be a part of without leaving London and, in this way, I ended up being on Rick Sander’s ‘Brum Radio Poets’ show on Brum Radio, and also on Hannah Kate’s ‘On the Bookshelf’ show on North Manchester FM, and I managed too to get poems from the book featured on BBC Radio Kent and BBC Radio West Midlands. So, while there have undoubtedly been some disastrous elements to lockdown, I’ve found, too, that it’s been, to some degree, a case of ‘what one hand taketh away the other giveth’.
What are you working on at the moment? Can you share details of any other projects you’re working on?
I’ve written both a novel and novella, and while neither of these manuscripts have found publishers yet, extracts from them have been published as standalone stories in magazines such as The Ghastling, Sick Lit and Here Comes Everyone. Other short stories of mine have been published in magazines such as Bare Fiction, Smoke: A London Peculiar and Fictive Dream, and some of these short stories, collected into a manuscript, were longlisted in the Mslexia First Drafts Competition in 2017.
Your writing encompasses many different themes. How do you decide whether to develop an idea into poetry or fiction?
Well, I’ve always written prose in tandem with poetry, and while it might be my downfall that I’ve never solely concentrated on one form or the other, one good thing is that there’s been much cross-pollination, with poems morphing into both flash fiction pieces and short stories, and vice versa. For instance, the first poem in the ‘Combative’ section of my book, entitled ‘Shopping with Perseus’, started out as a piece of prose, a 721-word story that was first published in the urban feminist literary magazine, Geeked; then, after being edited down to 500 words, it won first prize in the Third Annual Stories of SW1 Writing Competition; then, finally, after being edited a little more, was changed into being the poem that’s in the book.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Not really – as I think a lot of things were covered there in the above questions – except to say that my book, Grenade Genie, is available from my publisher, Fly on the Wall Press (and direct from me if you’d like a signed copy). Cheers!
Review of Grenade Genie by Kev Milsom
It’s always great to have an interesting quote at the beginning of any book review; something that gives a teasing indication of what is to come, like an intriguing starter on the menu of a new restaurant, yet to be explored.
In this case, the quote is indeed intriguing and succeeds in pulling us in for further exploration: ‘25 brief studies of the cursed, coerced, combative and corrupted’.
Thomas McColl has completed a collection of poetry, published by Fly On The Wall Press, who are certainly not unknown to us here at Ink Pantry, as we have also interviewed Isabelle Kenyon, Elizabeth Horan and Colin Dardis from the same publishers.
Thomas has a fine pedigree in writing, collaborating with Confluence Magazine, The High Window, Never Imitate, and Write Out Loud. He has also performed poems from the book on BBC Radio Kent, BBC Radio WM, Brum Radio and London Soho Radio.
So, let’s peek into Grenade Genie and see what lurks within. We start with the ‘Cursed’ section, which contains seven poems. The first of these is ‘No Longer Quite So Sure’. This poem is very strong on visual imagery and it’s easy for the reader to sit back and relax into the words being relayed to the mind. Alongside the creative, descriptive vocabulary, here’s a message here; namely one of social observation and relevance. Metaphors fly around and each of them is related in a way that the reader can quickly interpret and identify with. In this way, a simple bus ride is cleverly morphed into likening buses to bison and citizens become grass.
‘The council is yet to cut back the branches of the trees on Newman Road, which means that, halfway through my journey to work on the bus – and always just as I fall asleep in my usual seat on the upper deck, with my hooded head at rest against the glass –’
Strong, underlying messages within Thomas’s words continue with ‘The Evil Eye’, a poem about damaging addictions to technology and different forms of online manipulation.
You’ve allowed yourself to get caught in a cobweb spun by a social spider that sucks you dry of information, then leaves your hollowed-out exoskeletal frame to rot on its website.’
Thomas uses the opening ‘Cursed’ section of the book to comment upon such powerful subjects as refugees, government cover ups and more.
Keen to explore what lay within the second ‘Coerced’ section, I read ‘Security Pass’, a highly personal exploration of how our identities become less personal and individualistic within a large company, or business – perhaps the author relating to his current job within the House of Commons, or perhaps his former career within a famous, High Street bank.
‘I’ve just been made permanent – yet already I know I’m completely expendable’.
The writing style which Thomas employs is very effective. You can ‘hear’ his voice within the poems and it’s clear that his passion for social commentary is expressed very well. While the topics are clearly very personal, the expression of his thoughts are relayed in a way that the reader can easily relate to. Thus, we share Thomas’s journey, rather than be admonished, or feel threatened, by it.
Fine, flowing examples of Thomas’s social commentary occur throughout this poetry collection and, I found that at every turn, I was intrigued by what he had to say – again, largely down to the way in which he writes and how he expresses his personal thoughts and observations so well.
In ‘Jackpot’, Thomas asks us to join him on the platform at London’s busy Oxford Circus underground station, likening the rush to get on a train to being in some form of human lottery.
‘Here I am at Oxford Circus station once again, allowing myself to be part of the human jackpot that’s released each time a train pulls in. I don’t know if anyone else ever thinks this, but whenever I’m on a train that’s entering this station and I’m watching the branded posters on the platform wall whiz past my carriage window, I’m reminded of playing a slot machine. OK, this one has a single horizontal spinning drum instead of the usual vertical three – but it’s not like the odds are stacked any more in my favour.’
We’re even welcomed into joining Thomas, back in the heady days of the late 1980s as he goes out on the town in Birmingham in his twenties. It’s clear he hates his bank job and wants some release from the pressures of working life (who hasn’t been precisely there?) that he describes so eloquently (and realistically) in his poem, ‘Nightclubbing In Brum, 1988’.
‘I look a right sight as I’m travelling into Brum on a Saturday night. It’s hard enough making the grade when still a hapless teen at the tail end of Thatcher’s decade, and though one plus about these times is that I’m able, still, to smoke a fag while swigging a can of beer on the top deck of the bus…’
‘Last week, I tore my trousers and lost a button, and being as I work for Lloyds Bank in Sutton (high standards in that posh part of town), I don’t want yet another dressing down, for it’s 1988, and though everyone says how much they hate being made to wear a suit (that’s more often than not a Mr Byrite one to boot), I at least get value out of mine, but some consolation! – Roll on 1989’…
In short, Grenade Genie is a fine collection of stylised, creative poetry, expressed in literary terms that anyone can understand. Highly recommended.
Chandra Gurung, who comes from the Himalayan country of Nepal, but is currently based in Bahrain, writes poetry in the Nepali language and translates poems from Arabic, Hindi and English into Nepali. His first poetry collection was published in 2007. A second collection is now due from Rubric Publishing, New Delhi. He recently participated in the First Dhaka Translation Festival in Bangladesh. In this interview he speaks about his passion for poetry and translation and of the things that have motivated him to become a writer.
Chandra, let’s start at the beginning. Please tell me something about your background and how you first became inspired to write poetry.
I come from a small village that is nestled in the hills in the Gorkha district of Nepal. The world-famous Gurkha soldiers, who are well-known for their gallantry and warfare and now serve with bravery in many different parts of the world, were named after this very place. The king of Gorkha defeated the rulers of the various small states and, with the help of the Gorkha people, shaped modern-day Nepal.
As a youngster, I derived a lot of enjoyment from reading books. My first poem was a rhyming poem about a kite. I remember reciting it at the school’s farewell day. Sadly, there was a yawning gap after that. Despite a deep desire to write poetry, I failed to make time for writing because I was a college student cum full-time teacher in a private school during the heyday of my campus life.
My dormant passion for poetry was well and truly revived after moving to Saudi Arabia in 2003. A kind of home sickness haunted me which fuelled my emotions and helped me to start writing again.
What do you see as being the role of a poet and what does poetry mean to you?
To engage in poetry, whether reading it or writing it, is to practice an enriching attentiveness. To practice poetry is to pluck details from the surrounding world- to see things more clearly, to recognize the beauty inherent in our lives, to experience pain and happiness and to connect with others around us. Poetry operates on so many different levels of consciousness. Poetry gives meaning to our lives. As Marie Howe has said, poetry can help to remind us all that we are alive.
Poets observe closely the world around them. They offer insight and entertainment and help us to measure our lives at a deeper and more meaningful level. Through their writing, poets add a new dimension to our existence. The role of the poet is to master language in ways that inspire us to experience something transcendent, useful and meaningful in our lives.
What would you say are the main influences on your poetry and how do they manifest themselves in your work?
I was away from my mother and my motherland from an early age. My poems explore exile and family, the pain of separation and the joy of reconciliation. They reflect the changing scenario of the society that I belong to. Poetry can be utilized as a means to build empathy and to bridge gaps of understanding between people. Poetry is meant to be our companion throughout every stage of societal awareness.
In my poems, I narrate stories drawn from my own life experiences. My poems reflect upon the social, political and moral issues of our time. Choosing the subject matter is central to my writing. I first decide what my poem will be about. The vivid metaphors come later. In all my poems, I strive to leave the reader with a sense of fulfilled expectation.
What type / genre of poetry are you interested in the most and why does it appeal to you?
Since I became fascinated with poetry, I have been writing in free verse. This form of writing gives me a certain sense of freedom and allows me some headroom for experimentation.
Please tell me a little bit about your translation work and how you became interested in translation in the first place.
In the present context, translation has become essential for the support and perpetuation of poetry or any other form of literature. Reading poetry in translation helps to foster a wider understanding between cultures.
During 2012, a number of Indian poets / writers joined me on Facebook. Through their suggestion, I began to translate some Nepali poems into Hindi. Later on, I started to translate some Hindi poems into Nepali. Running in parallel with this development, I have been translating several poems from Arabic into other languages.
Are there other areas of writing that you are interested in pursuing apart from poetry?
Without doubt, poetry is my first love! However, one cannot make a living out of poetry, let alone earn any royalties. Aside from poetry, I have been writing a series of essays on the lives of migrant workers in the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) countries*. Their pain and their sorrow has acted as a catalyst for my work.
Do you have a preferred place in which to write? If so, where is it?
Location matters a lot to me. The neighborhood and its environment affect my feelings, actions and thoughts and ultimately my writing process.
Generally, I prefer to write in a quiet place, somewhere that is well away from any kind of distraction or disturbance. Most of my ideas come to me when I am travelling or sitting alone.
What is the poetry scene like in Nepal? Are you optimistic about the future of poetry in Nepal?
The poetry scene in Nepal is flourishing. A lot of young people in Nepal are writing poetry. We need to channel their energy down the right paths in order to bring out the best in them. The editors of daily papers are receptive to poems and poetry reviews. Literary organizations are spreading their wings far and wide. New books are released regularly. Organisations that promote poetry competitions are also thriving. For all of these reasons I remain optimistic about the future of poetry in Nepal.
What is the poetry scene like in Bahrain? Are there any noticeable differences between the way poetry is received in Bahrain as opposed to Nepal?
Foreigners make up fifty-five per cent of the total population of Bahrain. Among them many like-minded writers have joined forces to form various literary groups. They have also organised a number of workshops and they network with each other on a regular basis. Regular annual literary symposiums take place. Local Bahraini writers also participate in a range of literary activities. Poets, writers and artists from different Arabic countries are frequently invited to participate in these events.
Literary circles in Bahrain are full of writers from diverse nations. Exchange of knowledge and experience occurs on regular basis. Arabic readers are irresistibly drawn towards poetry. Accomplished poets from the Arab countries have greatly enriched the world of poetry and much of their work has been translated into other languages. Translations and interactions are much less of a feature when it comes to Nepali poetry.
What collections have you had published to date and what are you working on at present?
As I mentioned earlier, I first started to write poetry seriously when I was in Saudi Arabia. Nostalgia for my homeland fuelled my emotions and acted as a spur for me to write. Thirty three of the poems that I wrote during this period were published in book form by Sathi Publications, (Kathmandu), after my return to Nepal in 2007.
A second volume, My Father’s Face, is about to be published by Rubric Publishing, (New Delhi). This volume consists of English translations of 47 poems originally written in Nepali.
What lessons have you learnt from writing poetry? Do you have any pieces of advice to pass on to other aspiring poets?
If I have learnt anything it is that writing poetry is the best way for me to remain in touch with my emotions. It helps me to think creatively —to look at the things from a different perspective or through a different lens. Poetry helps me to navigate the world in a different way to the extent that, at times, it feels as if I am approaching it from a different dimension. Ultimately it widens my understanding of myself and of others and changes things for the better. Poetry has its uses in every aspect of our living. We must keep our hearts and minds open to its possibilities so that we can become receptive to it.
My advice to emerging poets would be to persevere and to be patient. The journey that poetry will take you on is a long one. A regular diet of reading and writing is essential. The sky is the limit for young, aspiring poets.
*Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.
Neil Leadbeateris an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014), Sleeve Notes (Editura Pim, Iaşi, Romania, 2016) Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017) and Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019). His work has been translated into several languages including Dutch, French, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.
Laura Potts is a writer from West Yorkshire. A recipient of the Foyle Young Poets Award, her work has been published by Aesthetica, The Moth and The Poetry Business. Having worked at The Dylan Thomas Birthplace in Swansea, Laura became one of the BBC’s New Voices in 2017. She received a commendation from The Poetry Society in 2018 and was shortlisted for The Edward Thomas Fellowship in 2020.
How long have you been writing poetry?
The precise age is unremembered, but I was fairly young. Six or seven perhaps. That’s fifteen years ago now. It’s helped that I’ve always been a reader – I love to feel the gravity of a book in my hand – and my writing has grown quite naturally from that. One fed the other, and that’s still the case today. I suppose I was lucky as a child. I benefited from having grandparents who were already in their eighties when I was born. Their idea of a good time was settling down in the armchair with a good book, and I’ve inherited that.
My grandmother lurched from illness to illness and had endless time for me. She taught me to read and write. She would take me on her knee and read to me, often for hours into the evening, until I fell asleep. She loved ‘the greats’ – Tennyson, Keats, Chaucer, Walter Scott. Her voice had been broken by smoke in the war, and she could read with fabulous gravity. It was gorgeous and gravelly. I learnt to love poetry then, all because of the way she would read it. It’s the only voice which has ever done justice to verse for me.
What got you into sharing/performing your poetry?
I had joined a local writing group by the age of fifteen. We would meet once a month in the upstairs room of a musty pub in Wakefield. Old men dribbled verse into their pints and bemoaned the state of the nation. It was a bright, good time.
I was encouraged to share my work for the first time by two local writers who went to these meetings. With gentle advice, John Irving Clarke and Jimmy Andrex taught me the value of reading to a room on my own terms. They helped me realise that confidence and poise would come with time, and that I don’t have to shout to be heard. In that sense, I’ve always rejected performance. I read my poetry. It isn’t an act or a drama, and it isn’t memorised or scripted. I read it. That’s all. There’s pleasure enough in that.
How did you feel before and after your first performance?
Nervous! My first reading was at The Red Shed in Wakefield. I’d been asked to support Ian McMillan. I was fifteen, starstruck after meeting Helen Mort in the train station with her whippets the day before. It was winter, and I remember thinking that this Ian guy must be a big deal because people had travelled all the way from Harrogate in the snow to listen to him. I also remember having learnt my poems by heart and worrying about forgetting them. This is something I’ve since dropped. A book is part of a writer’s oeuvre and should play its own part in the performance.
Afterwards, I felt a small sense of achievement. I had stood in a dark room of strangers and read my little poems to them. What was more, Ian was there. And that was a big deal.
What kind of things are you writing about at the moment? Have the subjects of your poetry changed over time?
I’m doing the dreaming on a few poems about Anthony Burgess at the moment. It’s my way of making a small homage to one of my favourite writers. At times like this – when I’m not on commission – I tend to write in response to whatever I’m reading. Sometimes it’s a conscious response and sometimes it isn’t. This time it is.
But at other times, when I read my work, I’ll hear the faint ghosts of writers I’d been reading at the time. There might be a scrap of Plath here or a scrap of Ted there. Their presence was unintended at the time of writing. These are, unconsciously, the voices I write back to.
I’d say the subjects have changed over time. I’ve learnt to write with discipline – in the sense that I let myself write whatever I want to these days. There was a time when I used to write prescriptively. I’d read a love poem and decide to write one too. I’d read a verse about sex and set out on a mission to write my own. I suppose it works for some, but in the end I knew that I was writing myself into feelings which were forced rather than organic. It was like standing outside on a winter’s night, looking into a scene I wished I were part of.
And if I continued like that, I’d only ever be a dark watcher.
Do you think living in West Yorkshire shapes the type of poems you write?
Yes, of course. My place is as present as my politics, my ethics and my class. Every poem I write – every word I write- is a product of my place in the world. How can it be different?
I’ve read many papers which argue that creativity is inherent, is separate, is ‘disinterested’ (to quote Matthew Arnold). It supposedly exists in some alternate reality, untouched by the vagaries of everyday sexism, racism, the political climate, the calamity of war and human suffering. It’s a divine stream which we channel to escape our bleak realities. It’s manna from heaven. It’s crap.
I live in West Yorkshire and I always have. I think about this every day. My poems are the result of the books I’ve read, from The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle to The History Boys; the songs I’ve heard and the films I’ve watched; the marks that are made on voting cards; the (diminishing) forest on the distant moor; my grandfather’s medals which hang in the hall; the closing of Kellingley Colliery; Sylvia Plath Hughes at Heptonstall; my mother’s accent and my father’s lack of it; my single-sex education; the Miner’s Strike (yes, families are still not speaking to each other about that one here) and the endless endless endless endless endless endless news. There’s more, but we’ll leave it at that.
Who inspires your writing and why? Do you have any favourite poets or writers?
I’d have to say Dylan, but most people know that already. It’s his music that gets me. I love him on the page and on the ear. His intonation – that faux-Homeric bass voice – was just made to read poetry. And I like Sylvia Plath too. Mostly because she teaches me new vocabulary, and that’s always a good thing. My copy of Ariel is full of footnotes and definitions I’ve scribbled in the margins. But I’ve found that she stays with me for a long time after I’ve finished reading. Rather like a haunting.
The best collection I’ve read belongs to Peter Riley. Hushings, published by Calder Valley Poetry. I’d go so far as to say it’s the best book I’ve ever read. My copy has been on various ventures and was briefly lost for a frantic hour on Table Mountain in Cape Town when the wind blew it out of my hands.
In terms of music (because why can’t songs be poems too?), I like Leonard Cohen and The Cranberries. Dolores O’Riordan and her broken throat – the way her note will always break at the height of emotion – hurts a little every time I hear it. In a good way. Like Sylvia Plath all over again.
What is next for you? What are your plans?
I’m going to be taking a short break soon. Every now and then, the world’s white noise grows too loud and I can’t hear my own voice above the crowd. That’s when I know it’s time for a break. My first collection is almost finished, and I’d like to spend some time reading and writing before it goes out to the world. I’ll still be around – I’ve just finished a commission for The International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, and that’s still ongoing this year. And there’s another announcement to come, but I’ll have to wait a while for that one.
Really, I’d like to promote that attitude in itself. It’s alright to be selfish sometimes. Read some good books, read some bad books, watch movies you love but know you shouldn’t. It’s okay to take some time off sometimes. Writing is hard. And it’s even harder when you have bills to pay and a reality to live in. Be kind to yourself. That’s my only secret. Your best work will come when you take your time.
Jan Carson is a writer and community arts facilitator based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She has a novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears, and short story collection, Children’s Children, (Liberties Press), a micro-fiction collection, Postcard Stories (Emma Press), Postcard Stories 2 is forthcoming in July 2020. Her novel The Fire Starters was published by Doubleday in April 2019 and won the EU Prize for Literature for Ireland in 2019. In 2018 she was the inaugural Translink/Irish Rail Roaming Writer in Residence on the Trains of Ireland.
Claire Faulkner: I was intrigued and a little bit jealous when I first found out about Jan Carson’s plan to spend a year with Agatha Christie. Jan, a writer and community arts facilitator from Belfast, decided that 2020 would be the year in which she read all the novels written by Christie in order of publication. There are 66 of them. If this wasn’t enough of a challenge, Jan decided to pen her own response to each novel in the form of a short story.
Claire caught up with Jan…
what inspired you to spend a year with Agatha Christie?
read many of Agatha Christie’s books in the past. I
was around 8 and had read all the books in the children’s section of
my local library when a helpful librarian led me over to crime
fiction and introduced me to both Agatha Christie and Sherlock
Holmes. I fell in love with both. They were like my gateway drugs to
the world of adult fiction. I think Death
in the Clouds was the first Agatha
Christie I read. I’d always meant to come back and reread them all
in order and with 2020 marking the 100th
anniversary of her first publication (The
Mysterious Affair at Styles), now
seemed like the perfect time to set myself this challenge.
you always been a fan? Can I ask Poirot or Marple? (I genuinely love
them both, and could never pick between the two.)
always Poirot. I grew up watching the David Suchet adaptations for
ITV and I find Poirot so very familiar now, it’s like reading about
someone I actually know.
book are you up to? Are you enjoying the process of reading all the
Christie novels like this?
just about to begin Death on the Nile
which is novel number 22. That puts me exactly one third of the way
through. I thought I’d be fed up with Agatha Christie by now but
I’m really enjoying watching her style and themes develop. There’s
a marked difference between her writing in the first novel and the
twentieth. I’ve only really noticed this whilst reading them in
consecutive order. I also still get unreasonably excited each time I
get to the scene in the library where all the suspects are gathered
and Poirot reveals who the murderer is.
long do you think it will take you to complete?
plan to get the 66 novels finished by the end of November and to
spend December reading Agatha Christie’s autobiography, her
notebooks and the short stories.
you have a favourite Christie novel? I remember being completely
captivated by Body in The Library
when I was younger.
I regularly teach The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in my writing workshops because it’s such a fantastically good example of the unreliable narrator, so I’m very fond of that one. I also love the really creepy multiple body count novels like And Then There Were None and The ABC Murders. I tend to prefer the Poirot novels to her other works, though she was pretty fed up with her little Belgian by the time she finally managed to do away with him. There’s an amazing section in Cards on the Table which I recently read where she thoroughly lambasts Poirot under the guise of mocking her fictional crime writer, Ariadne Oliver’s signature Finnish sleuth. I love the way Agatha Christie wasn’t above laughing at her own tropes.
decided to write you own short story in response to each novel. Was
this part of the original challenge for you?
wanted some means of responding to each of the texts creatively and
intended to write a short story in response to the themes raised by
the books. However, I soon changed my mind as I’m not a crime
fiction writer and couldn’t really see myself writing 66 micro
crime stories. Instead, I’ve been selecting a single line from each
novel and writing a story inspired by this line of text. Some have a
crime theme. Some are magic realist. Mostly, I just let my
imagination take me wherever it wanted to go.
responses are posted online, but also written inside the novel and
left for other people to discover. I’d be thrilled if I found
something like this. What sort of response have you had from people?
When the project first began I was actually able to hide the novels in public spots and leave clues in social media for people to track the books down. I had some lovely responses on social media. People were genuinely delighted to find a book and one lady even sneaked out of work to track down a novel before anyone else could get to it. Since the Covid 19 pandemic I’ve been mailing the completed novels (with short stories handwritten inside), to people who are stuck at home, self-isolating. I’ve had so many appreciative responses. I think people find writers like Agatha Christie very comforting at times like this. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ve always held to the belief that Christie most fully embodies what George Orwell refers to as a good English murder in his essay, The Decline of the English Murder. Agatha Christie’s murders are good murders. They are not without point or planning. Justice is always served. Wrongdoing rarely goes unpunished. As such, the kind of crime fiction she writes reassures the reader. It makes us feel stabilised in a world which feel a bit unpredictable and out of control at the minute. I read Agatha Christie for the same reason I watch Casualty. Because I know order will be reinstated by the time I get to the end of the book or the episode. I read Agatha Christie because she can fool me into thinking everything’s going to be ok.
on the success of The Fire Starters.
Can you tell us a little about your novel?
Thank you. The Fire Starters is a magic realist novel set in East Belfast during the summer months. It follows two fathers: Sammy, an older ex-paramilitary who has stepped away from violence when he becomes a father and is now horrified to discover that his son, Mark, is actually orchestrating the riots sweeping across the city, and Jonathan, a young GP who is seduced by a siren and left with a small baby who may or may not be as destructive as her mother. Essentially it’s a novel which explores the question of how much a parent is responsible for the actions of their child. There’s a fair amount of the fantastical interwoven into the plot, a lot of quite dark humour and plenty of background for anyone unfamiliar with the Unionist community in Northern Ireland.
from Agatha Christie, are you reading anything else at the moment?
Who would you recommend you our readers?
read constantly. I read both to escape and also to learn how to be a
better writer. At the minute I’m really enjoying the writings of
James Baldwin. He’s such a meticulous and insightful writer; so
much of what he wrote in the 50s and 60s still rings true. My
favourite more recent books of the last few years have been Valeria
Luiselli’s amazing The Lost
Children Archives, Samanta
Scweblin’s Fever Dream
and Tommy Orange’s There There.
All wildly different novels but very much concerned with story. I’m
the sort of reader who needs a novel to have an engaging plot as well
as beautifully crafted language and believable, engaging characters.
your next challenge?
I’m currently editing two books. My next novel to be published by Doubleday in April 2021, (as yet to be titled) and a collection of microfiction stories to be published in July 2020. This will be my second collection of Postcard Stories published by the Emma Press. If you’d like to read a sample of Postcard Stories I’m currently writing one a day and mailing them to older isolated individuals. They’re being illustrated by small children, and the stories with accompanying images can be viewed on Instagram.
Wayne Holloway-Smith teaches at the University of Hertfordshire. His poems have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies. His first book-length collection, Alarum, was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2017. In 2018 Wayne won the National Poetry Competition for ‘the posh mums are boxing in the square’.
Wayne, thankyou for agreeing to
speak to Ink Pantry. First of all, I’d like to say thankyou for the
daily emails you have been sending out during lockdown. They’ve been
a real help to me, not only introducing me to other poets, but also
giving me ideas for different approaches towards my own writing. What
inspired you to do these? Have you been surprised by the reaction?
Hiya. No problem, it’s nice to talk.
I’m glad to hear the daily emails are
helping in some way, and that they’re introducing you to interesting
work. Erm, I think what inspired them was that I was seeing lots of
people commenting in various ways about a loss of connection during
this time, and boredom – and various anxieties manifesting in all
types of ways. I have wanted to challenge myself to be more
thoughtful and generous for a long while. And I guess I see this as
one way of testing that.
I’m aware that I have a certain level of readership, and thought if people enjoyed the work, then maybe I should give them things to keep them occupied. I was worried that this might seem like a self-indulgent exercise too, though. I put out a gentle offer on Twitter – expecting perhaps between 5-50 takers, and was shocked to find I’m now emailing over 250 people on a daily basis. The feedback has been really amazing, actually. People have been very enthusiastic, and it’s so nice to see people posting work online that didn’t exist until a couple of hours ago. Some very good and interesting things.
Has poetry always been a part of
I grew up in a house with no books at
all and failed all of my GCSEs. My careers advisor ‘advised’ me to
work in a factory or in the voluntary sector. I didn’t actually know
that poetry existed, at that point, in a contemporary sense. When I
started writing, I thought I was the UK’s first contemporary poet.
How would you describe your work?
How I think about my own work changes all the time, and is always influenced by the last thing I wrote and what I’m reading, what I’ve seen on TV, the song I’ve most recently listened to. I’m much more interested to hear how other people see it. Someone said the other day that I bleed onto the page, then mop it up. The stains that are left is the poem. I won’t tell you who. Haha. I think he/ she/ they were taking the piss.
When I read your work I find it open and personal. If I was reviewing, I’d describe your style as direct but also vulnerable, and as a reader I sense an honesty in your poems which I can connect to. Do you set out to share such vulnerability or does this naturally develop during your writing process? (I’m thinking of ‘the posh mums are boxing in the square’ which I find deeply emotional.)
I think I only want to write
vulnerably, and honestly. I have no time for irony, or distancing or
whatever. Other people have said it better than me, but basically
conventional English is limiting, and poetry is a means through which
we might find another vocabulary for our emotional experiences.
The idea and notion of identity also
features in your work. The poem ‘Some Waynes’ made me question if
you can ever really be one ‘identity’, or whether we are mix of every
assumption or every ideal placed upon us. How do you feel the theme
of identity fits within your work?
I don’t think identity is fixed. It’s
an ongoing negotiation, and contingient upon your socio-economic
circumstances, your friends, your background, and also, partly, pure
chance. So each time I write, I’m working out, or trying to work out
a bit of how I see the world and myself in relation to it at the
point that I’m writing.
Can you share any details of what
you’re working on currently?
Love Minus Love is coming out in July, from Bloodaxe Books. I’m excited about that. I think it might be the best thing I ever make. I’m also writing new things, feeling my way into how I might write next.
Are there any poets you are enjoying
reading at the moment?
I love Natalie Shapero, Anthony
Anaxagorou, CAConrad, Rachael Allen, Helen Charman, Holly Pester,
Hieu Minh Nguyen, Raymond Antrobus, Terrance Hayes, Ross Gay, Paige
Lewis, Rebecca Tamas, Selima Hill, Morgan Parker, Richard Siken,
Jericho Brown, Jenny George. Also new writers to look out for: Arji
Manuelpillai, Emma Jeremy, Katie O’Pray.
A lot of our readers are new and
aspiring writers. Do you have any advice for them?
I think that the biggest thing is that
there is no objective good poem, and no set way of doing things. Read
the writers you love and try to learn as much from them as you can.
Talk to others. And write what makes you feel energised.
Debz Butler runs Testify, a community organisation which organises open mic nights and writing workshops in Chester. Testify prides itself on delivering poetry without the pretension, and whether you’re a first timer or an experienced performer, everyone is welcome. We were delighted when Debz agreed to talk to us about Testify…
always been interested in poetry?
Not really. I’ve
always written short stories and really loved reading, but poetry
wasn’t really on my radar. I thought that because I didn’t know
about form, that anything I wrote could never be ‘proper’. It was
only in 2016 that I gained the confidence to call what I was writing
What made you
decide to share and perform your own work?
I wanted to see if what I was writing was ‘real’ poetry so decided to go to an open mic night. I went to Sale Write Out Loud and was instantly hooked. I went, not intending to perform, but got up at the very last minute and loved it. It was such a great buzz to share something so personal. It was so inspiring to hear other people perform, I think a really important trait of being a performer is learning from others. With open mic nights, sometimes you have to kiss a few frogs before you find the right supportive space for you. I was very lucky that I landed on the right one for me on my first go.
you to write?
My own life experiences mostly. I try writing what’s happening in the news but my personal feelings always end up in there. I have to do a lot of editing on my work to make sure it’s not just me ranting to the sky. In 2018, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and apart from journalling, I couldn’t write throughout my treatment. I’m only just managing to confront that experience and write about it. I think its an important lesson in giving things time.
you perform a few times now. I love what you do, I think my
favourite at the moment is Moon Cup. But I was also very moved by
some of your work about nursing. You bring a realism and share
experiences in poetry which many women can relate to. How do
audiences react to your work?
I’ve generally had good responses to my work, people say they can relate to it. You have to gauge your audience though, sometimes the mood in the room dictates what I perform. At Testify, I always perform first to ‘warm up the mic’ and how many people are there/how enthusiastic they are, has a big influence on what I perform.
You organise and run Testify, (when we’re all allowed out), a poetry night in Chester, which is great, by the way. I think there was definitely a need for a regular performance poetry night in the city. Can you tell us a bit about Testify and the reasons you started it?
I had found a couple of open mic nights I loved but they were predominantly in Manchester. I found Chester Poets but it is on a Thursday, when I didn’t have regular childcare. I continued to go to the Manchester nights for about a year, then during the Chester Literature Festival I got talking to the artistic director about how the Storyhouse would be the perfect venue for a regular open mic night. He told me that he’d give me the space if I ran it – and so Testify was born!
After 2 months, we outgrew the space in the Storyhouse and so moved to Hanky Panky Pancakes – our forever home.
What has been
the reaction to Testify?
Overwhelmingly positive and supportive. We have a good group of regulars now who show up, as well as a constant stream of new people. Testify isn’t for everyone and that’s fine. There are other groups out there. Some people disagree with Testify’s ethos of ‘be supportive to everyone’ and say we shouldn’t applaud mediocre work. I disagree. I didn’t start the night to make people feel shit about themselves. The number one rule of Testify is ‘don’t be dick’ and if you can’t abide by that, then we aren’t for you.
lockdown, Testify has moved online. You’ve been sharing ideas,
poetry and prompts. Can anyone join the Testify Facebook group?
Even if you never have any intention of coming to a Testify night or
are going to leave straight after lockdown is over, you are welcome
in the group.
Do you have
any advice or recommendations for new poets?
Keep reading, keep writing, keep watching. Your first work will be shit. That’s fine. Find an open mic night or writing group that suits you and stick with it. Whenever I feel blocked, being around other writers always inspires me. Always read the submission guidelines.
Who are your
favourite poets? What are you reading at the moment?
Thats a hard
one! My all time fave is Dominique Christina who is an American poet
and slam winner. Her work always makes me cry.
work always blows me away, as does Maz Hedgehog. Nick Degg is bloody
brilliant as well. Rosie Garland is always an absolute master in
performance and writing.
I don’t read a lot of poetry, I prefer to watch videos on YouTube or see people live, but David Subacchi’s latest collection, Where is Wales, is beautiful, as is, When Women Fly, by Sarah Pritchard.
Where can we
find more of your work?
I have a page on the website with links to my published work.
I’ve also been featured in ‘These are the hands’, a poetry anthology featuring NHS staff. All profits are going to the COVID-19 emergency fund and people can buy a copy here.
Poetry festivals. What’s not to like? Books, events, workshops, performances. The chance to meet other writers, share ideas and get inspired. For me, one of the best things about poetry festivals is the sense of community, and the first time I went to Verve Festival I was instantly hooked. Verve is back next month and I managed to catch up with festival organiser Stuart Bartholomew to ask him all about it.
How did Verve start? How long have you been involved?
I am a founder member of Verve with my original co-director, Cynthia Miller. I secretly think Cynthia always intended to persuade me that a Birmingham City Centre full-spectrum poetry festival was necessary, but she insists she didn’t. I was running Waterstones in Birmingham and we wanted to do more with events, but until The Emma Press brought a group of poets to the store for a small event for Valentines in 2016 – headlined by Liz Berry – I had no idea how amazing live poetry could be. It really set me off, and with Cynthia encouraging all the way, I’d programmed a full four day festival for the store by the end of that summer and secured arts council funding to help make sure we broke even. I think the things we were trying to fix were – Birmingham Literature Festival not programming enough poetry (to our tastes anyway), our favourite poets never coming to Birmingham, our favourite Birmingham poets never being picked up by poetry publishers, many poetry events seeming exclusive particularly if you are from a minority or too young, and the separation that exists between excellent performance poetry and amazing page poetry in terms of the scenes and poetry consumption. It felt like Verve could help us to address ALL these things.
How would you describe Verve to someone who has never been before?
It is a city centre full-spectrum poetry festival which celebrates poetry in all its forms and welcomes poetry fans of all ages and levels of experience to join our annual poetry party.
Verve is a festival packed full of workshops, poetry and spoken word performances. How do you begin to organise an event like this?
I have a lot of help. Birmingham poetry people love having the festival and always lend a hand. In terms of the programming, I find it incredibly easy. The idea is that events will run end to end on Thursday & Friday evenings and then all day on Saturday and Sunday, so that no-one needs to miss anything, unless they are in one of our six workshops a day. I keep a running list of all the poets I need to bring (which relates quite closely to poets I need to see myself), and another list of poets I’d like to come back or get more involved, and there are always more poets on both lists than I can possible fit into a single weekend. I am committed to the four day structure of the event – I think when festivals drag on over more than one weekend, it becomes difficult for people to do the whole thing. I like the idea of our audience drowning in poetry for a few days – staying as long as possible, and heading home fully sated, feeling like they’ve done it properly. Others of course can dip in and out, but there are a sizable chunk of people who do the whole thing.
seems that the festival grows in popularity and strength every year.
What can we look forward to seeing this year? (I’m looking forward
to the lecture with Yomi Sode).
I think you’re right. Our audience has grown by 33% each year for the first three years, and I think it gets stronger because we learn lessons each year about what works best. So for instance, the venue change this year is going to be a big plus, both in terms of visibility but also solving the accessibility problems we had last year, particularly for workshops. And we have moved our competition event (which is always my favourite event) from the Saturday morning to the Sunday to pump a little more energy into that day (the commended poets who come and read at that event get a free day pass to the rest of that day – it will be lovely to see what they think of it all.)
I think you’re right to be looking forward to Yomi’s lecture. That’s a really great regular addition to the programme that we came up with in conjunction with Poetry School. I really struggle to come up with highlights, because as programmer I tend to love everything, but if I were to pick a single event, it would be the Saturday Early Evening Headline Event featuring Jay Bernard, Mary Jean Chan and Caroline Bird, and hosted by Jo Bell. But really, there will be Birdspeed, Rachael Allen, Vidyan Ravinthiran, Salena Godden, Jaspreet Kaur, Fathima Zahra, Heather Phillipson, Mimi Khalvati, Deryn Rees-Jones, Jonathan Edwards and many many more amazing poets at Verve. Whatever time you’ll come, you’re sure to see something amazing.
The festival has its own competition, this year the theme was diversity and was judged by Andrew McMillian. Have you been pleased with the response?
I love the competition, mainly because I love the competition winners’ event. It allows the three winners, twenty one commended poets and three-four commissioned local poets, the opportunity to read at and attend Verve and not only meet but be hosted and introduced by the judge. Andrew had been a pleasure to work with and it is always fun and interesting to see what the judge picks and why. The competition is completely anonymous at point of judging, so it’s fun to to let the judge know who they’ve picked. One of the remits of Verve is to involve emerging or even brand new poets and this event, along with the workshops and open mics is that main way that we can do this.
seen some fantastic poets perform at Verve and The Verve Specials. Do
you have a favourite Verve performance from the last couple of years?
(I have particularly enjoyed performances from Romalyn Ante, Salena
Godden and Kaveh Akbar.)
Yes, I loved all three of these, although the one that sticks out in my mind was the Special that featured Lindsay Hera Bird. We teamed her up with two amazing local poets – Jenna Clake (who is bringing a collection out with Bloodaxe in 2021) and Hannah Swingler, and it was such an incredible night and such a thrill to hear her read and talk. At the actual festival, I loved hearing Sumita Chakraborty read her long poem ‘Dear, beloved’ in it’s entirety at last year’s event. It was a half an hour long read, and it was breath-taking, and other poets such as Vahni Capildeo and Jane Commane were sitting in the audience watching and just lapping it up!
would you like to see the festival develop in the future?
really happy with the adult element of the festival, although I’d
like it to continue to develop and evolve – I have this idea of
having a living magazine element at the festival in which an event
contains a talk, reviews as well as readings with multiple poets, but
I’ve not quite found the way to make it happen. An easier fix will
be to relaunch a kids element to Verve. We tried having a kids
festival run alongside the adult one during the first two years and
it was wonderful but really hard to make broad enough for different
age-ranges. We’ll be looking at kick starting that side of things
up again in 2021.
you have a wish list of poets you would like to see at Verve?
Of course. It’s vast. I’m desperate to get Malika Booker along – also AK Blakemore and Emily Berry. And I’d like to do something with Flipped Eye.
you have time to enjoy the festival?
I always enjoy the festival – it makes me so happy to see so many people enjoying poetry and to meet so many amazing practitioners. I get to sit in and see a lot of it as we have such a great team. Apart from the workshops – I’ve no idea what goes on in there.
A lot of our readers are new writers. Do you have any advice for inspiring poets?
I do. Read lots of poetry. Lots of different kinds of poetry. Form sharing poetry communities, whether that’s small groups learning together or regular open mic nights. I think a lot of poetry is made in isolation, but I think the sharing part of poetry is the most powerful element of it. There are so many possibilities that are impossible to discover on your own.
can people get tickets and keep up to date with what’s going on?
Yes, tickets are up on the Birmingham Hippodrome website
We have our own website at but the best way of keeping in touch day to day is on Twitter
In the run up to the festival, we never shut up on Twitter! 😊